Got a bit of a find for you this week. One of our readers put me on to a couple of recent episodes of the Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast in which the hosts were discussing the role of Women in comic books they’re both pretty interesting so I’d suggest having a listen before we carry on:
(they’re also available on itunes if you, like me, are a slave to your ipod)
If you’re somebody who has a passing interest in comic book history then there probably won’t be a tonne of stuff in the second episode that surprises you, though I will admit that in my innocence I had, until now, remained unaware of the true extent of Wonder Woman’s BDSM roots. The first one however is a veritable treasure trove of interesting ideas.
Women in Refrigerators forms the central theme of the episode and is a website that I was previously unaware of and now am totally in love with. Essentially it is a site that was created by Gail Simone (Wonder Woman, Secret Six) back in 1999 and refers (in name at least) to a particular Green Lantern story. It’s goal is to catalogue the various women in comics who have suffered horrible ends, usually for the sake of progressing the plot of a male character.
I must admit that as a longtime fan of the Kyle Rayner character, the idea of WIR appeals to me. Over the years Kyle has had so many female acquaintances butchered in so many unusual ways that it’s difficult to keep up. It feels like every time people run out of ideas of what to do with ol Torchbearer, they just off a lady in his life and have him get mad about it for a few issues. It’s lazy storytelling and I hate it. But that’s missing the point of the site. There are literally scores of women that have been, cut up, raped, depowered etc over the years and the point of this site is to question whether this was necessary or not.
Now, there’s a point which should be raised here which is best summed up by Mark Millar:
“As regards the female characters thing, I’m afraid I think it’s giving male creators a bum deal. The list does read pretty shocking at first until you think of everything the male heroes have gone through, too, in terms of deaths/mutilations/etc.” – (source)
It’s a fair argument but the point is that the deaths of these male characters tend to occur as part of that character’s story, in the case of many of these dead women, they have been killed off in order to further the story of a male character. Finding enough examples of men who have died in order to further a female character to fill such a list would be quite a challenge.
So what is the reason for this imbalance? Well to my mind it’s all down to marketing. The majority of super hero comic readers are male and as such the majority of superhero comics feature male protagonists. Because these heroes tend to be hetrosexual they will invariably at some point acquire a female love interest and when the story ideas run dry, guess who is the first on the dramatic chopping block? You guessed it. Interestingly enough, this phenomenon isn’t strictly limited to female acquaintances, you could just as easily draw up a list of side kicks, brothers, fathers, co-workers and anyone else. The law of superhero comics dictate that if you are buddies with a hero, you’re only one case of writers block away from a messy swan song.
Now it should be said that in the ten years since WIR was launched, the scales have balanced out a little. We’ve seen a number of men suffer a number of unheroic deaths and a number of women assume mainstream roles. Even Stephanie Brown, the much debated “Robin that wasn’t”, has recently recovered from her grizzly, drill based death to star in her own series as the new Batgirl (and honestly, in a world where fucking Jason Todd has been brought back, it’s about time). But the fact that such a list has emerged in such a time should be a cause for concern for comic book writers everywhere. In the cartoon world in which we operate, life is cheap and death buys you fans, but while we have every right to produce books that have commercial appeal we should always remain aware of the way our work may be perceived outside of the narrow demographic to which we are pitching. If we only ever write for teenage boys then how do we expect to appeal to anyone else? There’s plenty of women out there who want to read comics and it’s really hard to do that from inside of a fridge.